Relatively large winter runs of spawning chum and, every other year, pink salmon in a number of coastal B.C. rivers attract nearly half of all of North America's bald eagles. Each winter B.C.'s resident population of some 12,000 of the once endangered raptors swells to over 30,000 with birds drawn from Alaska, the Yukon, Alberta and as far away as Wyoming and Arizona. The Squamish River, halfway between Vancouver and Whistler, is particularly bountiful and has attracted as many as 3,766 of these normally solitary birds in one season.
Dem Bones: Grisly bones are all that remain of another successful salmon run. Yet someting stirs below the frigid waters in the coarse gravel of the river bottom. Life invisibly gathers strength as scavengers and decay erase every vestige of the last generation.
Eagles begin flocking in as early as November each year and lingering on until the following February. From late December to early January the transient eagle population reaches its peak, making the holiday season an ideal time to visit. A high point of this natural wonder is the Annual Eagle Census which takes place on January 15 each year. Volunteers are always needed for this chore so it's a good chance to get involved, meet others who share a love of and fascination with nature and be part of an important event.
The cheapest, easiest way to simply get a glimpse of this marvel is to hop a bus to Squamish. See Getting to Whistler for details. Once you arrive be prepared to walk [See map.]
If you arrive by bus simply take Government Road north for less than a kilometre. As soon as you see the dikes on your left you have reached Eagle Run. The main viewing area is directly across from Easter Seal Camp Squamish.
If you are arriving by car pool you'll want to turn off the Sea to Sky Highway 99 at the Squamish McDonald's. Almost immediately on your right you'll find Buckley Avenue. Turn here and continue north until the first set of railway tracks. If you take a sharp left here you may see the trumpeter swans which make Squamish Estuary their home. Since swans are not our main objective you'll probably want to continue along Buckley Road. Follow Buckley Road south for a half kilometre or so until you reach the first right. Take it and immediately on your right you'll see the high dikes which flank the Squamish River. Pull over and clamber up on the banks and, if you haven't seen any eagles yet, you should begin spotting them directly across the river. These few stragglers are nothing: the best is yet to come. Continue following the river upstream, crossing the mouth of the Mamquam River via the Government Road bridge, not the railway bridge. Whenever crossing railway tracks here use extreme caution as the crossing is not controlled and speeding freight trains are frequent along the busy CN Rail tracks.
A juvenile bald eagle scoots past.
From the Government Road bridge peer into the crystal clear water to spot spawning salmon early in the season or their spent carcasses later on. Decay is slow in the icy water so eagles and other scavengers will continue feeding on them well into February. From the bridge stay with the dike following the Mamquam River downstream past the local animal shelter and sewage treatment plant. Near the end of the dike trail you'll reach Eagle Run where the largest number of Eagles are concentrated.
Of Eagles and Men
Photo opportunities abound here. Not only are the eagles themselves a majestic subject but the spawning salmon and their spent carcasses provide a bittersweet foil to the elegy of survival, of renewal acted out each winter on the banks of the Squamish. Keep in mind that by as early as noon in the dead of winter the eagles perched in the trees across the river will be in the shadows. An early start is recommended. Depending on the weather and the time of winter most eagles may be inactive, conserving their energy in an effort to survive the long cold winter. You may note the pecking order of eagle society among those actively feeding. Juveniles, those without the distinctive white head of the Bald Eagle, will defer to their seniors, waiting impatiently as the elder birds feast on carrion.
Later in the season as food becomes scarcer, watch as eagles rely on sea gulls to pull salmon carcasses up from the depths of the river. The giant raptors will then swoop in, commandeering the yummy victuals for themselves. You are sure to catch a whiff reminiscent of cod liver oil as the birds tear at the decaying flesh. A word of warning: never approach too closely to the eagles or disturb them in any way. Winter is a difficult time for these birds and flying uses up crucial energy reserves. If distressed too often eagles may not survive winter's torments.
A unique way to see the wintering bald eagles is to join a float tour. These river rafting packages are reasonably priced and allow participants the opportunity to see parts of the Squamish River not normally accessible to road-bound naturalists. Tours are generally interpretative though the knowledge of guides and quality of the information varies somewhat. Usually you can arrange to be picked up at or bus station prior to the tour. Don't expect a raging, whitewater experience, however. Water levels are quite low in all rivers throughout winter so you can expect rafting to be a serene, slow-paced experience emphasizing harmony.
In addition to river rafting, the Sun Wolf Outdoor Centre has ten rustic riverside cabins, fireplace-equipped, for those who would like to combine eagle viewing with a romantic overnight getaway. Visit Sunwolf Outdoor Centre or call: 1 (604) 898-1537 or toll free at 1 (844) 898-1537.